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Three TU students receive American Psychological Association awards

The American Psychological Association (APA) honored three TU psychology doctoral students for outstanding research papers in clinical neuropsychology (APA Division 40-Society for Clinical Neuropsychology). From data collection to the final paper review, McFarlin Professor of Psychology and Director of Clinical Training Michael Basso mentors his students to start with a question and then investigate. “Together with my graduate students, we provide neuropsychological evaluations in clinic.  As we talk about patients, students will ask questions that nobody has addressed in the research literature.   This provides an excellent opportunity for us to generate a research project,  ” Basso explained.

The research process can take years to complete. “For one of the projects which received recognition by APA, data collection alone took two years,” Basso said. This year, the questions focused on multiple sclerosis or risk-taking behavior. After Basso and his students have gathered their information, “We analyze data together and write up a submission. We edit it side by side until it is ready to submit,” Basso said.

In August at the annual American Psychological Association Convention, all three students will present their findings either as a presentation or a poster.  In addition, the trio will each receive a $1,000 research award for their contributions to the field. “It’s a pretty competitive process,” and Basso was surprised to have three students recognized.

Bradley Reynolds

Brad Picture Bradley Reynolds examined a well-known cognitive decision-making measure, the Iowa Gambling Task (IGT), with a less traditional spin. Typically utilized to assess patients with brain damage, Reynolds administered it to a healthy adult sample. “It is translational research. I am essentially discussing a measure that has clinical implications for real-world populations,” Reynolds said.

The IGT uses four decks of cards, but two of the decks are inherently disadvantageous. In time, if examinees continue drawing from these decks, they will lose more money. The other two decks yield lesser rewards with smaller losses over repeated selection. “Ideally, a good decision maker will learn to prefer the small reward and small punishment decks because over time, they will lose less money,” Reynolds explained.

Individuals who are more impulsive will persist in drawing cards from the more damaging deck.  Such decision-making is thought to correspond to real-world risky behavior.  This may be particularly evident in a young adult population.  When applied to college students, Reynolds asked these questions: “How often are students engaging in risky sexual behaviors? How often are they misusing alcohol or other substances? How often do they engage in aggressive, apathetic, or irresponsible behavior?”

Reynolds found that college students who make riskier choices on the IGT are are more prone to maladaptive and  potentially destructive acts. Reynolds is eager to present his findings in a speech at the APA convention.

 Lily Lau

LilyAs a fifth-year doctoral student, Lily Lau knows she has a passion for patients who have declining cognitive function. Grounded in a loving relationship with her grandfather and grandmother, who struggle with memory loss, Lau was motivated to investigate people who have cognitive impairment and dementia.

She also concentrates on minority populations. “They don’t seek out treatment because they think it’s embarrassing, especially in Asian cultures. As an Asian, it’s important for me to inform them about the disease and the available treatments that are out there,” Lau said.

Her research paper explored the influence of fatigue on neuropsychological performance in people with multiple sclerosis (MS). Fatigue influences a patient’s physical, cognitive and psychosocial functioning.

Nearly 90 percent of individuals with MS report significant fatigue, and many of them consider it their most distressing symptom,” Lau said.

Her data showed that increasing subjective fatigue corresponds with worsening cognitive performance. “Fatigue is characterized as an absence of energy both physically and cognitively,” Lau said. Under the weight of exhaustion, it is difficult to live fully with MS.

Daniel Guzman

DanDaniel Guzman, a second-year doctoral student, is primarily focused on enhancing the accuracy of neuropsychological assessment of people with MS.  Many people with MS struggle with physical symptoms that can decrease their ability to persist in tasks, especially demanding activities such as a neuropsychological assessment.  Consequently, it can be difficult for a neuropsychologist to determine whether a person’s test performance reflects situational influences such as effort or chronic problems such as brain damage.  “We need to understand whether a person’s cognitive presentation reflects genuine impairment or a lack of effort to perform on assessment tasks,” Guzman explained.

In Guzman’s research project, patients with MS were administered measures of performance effort in addition to other neuropsychological tests.  Measures of performance effort are commonly administered in clinical neuropsychological assessments, and they are used to ensure that the examinee was not exaggerating impairment.  Typically, such measures appear to be relatively challenging to examinees, but their apparent difficulty is deceptive.  “Even people with serious impairments can perform effectively on these tests.” If a person with MS performed poorly on the test, “it suggests that they did not exert effective effort when taking the test.  They may have been tired, depressed, in pain, apathetic, or perhaps endeavoring to exaggerate the severity of their cognitive impairment,” Guzman said.

Accurate test results are especially significant in a legal setting or with a disability claim; but in a research setting, there is no monetary incentive. Guzman was surprised to find that even without enticements, a small number of patients exaggerated their symptoms. His data will help doctors to evaluate MS patients with more precision. “It’s fascinating to see how injuries in one person could present entirely differently in someone else,” Guzman said.

To learn more about graduate programs in clinical psychology, click here.